Category Archives: Church Life

The Biblical Marks of Discipleship

One of the current needs of the church today is to recover the biblical concept of discipleship. Over the past generation the understanding of discipleship as being foundational to the mission and life of the church has been watered down. During the same period of time one can find many resources devoted to the topic. However, instead of being the foundational principle upon which the church should operate, discipleship has been relegated to just one ministry amongst many within the church. During this time, the church has unofficially adopted the strategy of running programs as being the necessary approach to building a healthy church. Hence churches have children’s programs, youth programs, evangelism programs, discipleship programs, and music and worship programs – amongst many others. This partitioning of programs has led people to see discipleship as just another program within the larger church with the effect that people see it as an option or preference. One person joins the choir, another goes to the discipleship class, but both are “active” in ministry. And while that may be so, as a result of partitioning the church into programs, the church is not fulfilling the great commission.

Before Jesus ascended to the Father he made clear the purpose of the church. Every gospel account and the book of Acts communicates some version of the Great Commission. The most explicit enunciation of the Great Commission is found is Matthews’s gospel. Their Jesus said,

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen” (Matthew 28:18-20, NKJV).

From this text it is clear that the Great Commission is not limited to evangelism. And while the church has always understood that the Great Commission is a command to lead people to Christ, it has not always embraced the equally important aspect of this command to lead people to grow in Christ as disciples.

The word disciple literally means “a learner.” That aspect of discipleship is clearly articulated in Matthews’s account. However, when one takes a larger view of scripture it becomes clear that a disciple is a learner who follows his/her teacher. When Jesus first called his disciples, he did not call them to simply be students. He called them to follow him (Matthew 4:19). In addition, this was a call to begin a new way of life where following Jesus took priority over everything else (Luke 5:11). In Matthews’s account of the Great Commission this idea of discipleship is the primary emphasis of the command. While Jesus was clearly commanding the church to do evangelism, this was to be done under the wider scope of making disciples.

This idea is further communicated in the book of Acts chapter eleven. Several years after Christ gave the command to make disciples, the church in Antioch was sending Paul and Silas out as missionaries. During this period Luke records that “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (vs. 26). Of significance is that the term “Christian” was not an identification the church gave itself. The word came from those who were hostile to the church. It was essentially a pejorative name given by the enemies of the church to identify those who were actively (and antagonistically in the minds of non-believers) following Christ. The early disciples were so effective in following Christ by both leading people to Christ, and teaching them to also follow Christ, that the non-believing community took notice. Hence a “Christian” was known as one who followed Christ in such a way that non-believers knew who they were by what they were doing in Jesus’ name. In addition, immediately after Pentecost when Peter preached his first sermon, the church did not simply preach for people to accept that Jesus was the long awaited for Messiah, but after their confession of faith, the apostles began the process of teaching the church to effectively follow Christ (Acts 2:42). Later as the church matured, and even came under intense persecution, these Christians “went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). Their training as disciples led them to publically follow Christ as they both proclaimed Jesus as Lord and Savior, and led others to do the same.

The very heart of the Great Commission, then, is to make disciples who, in turn, have made it their purpose to follow Christ by making disciples. If there is one biblically legitimate “program” for the church, then, it is to make disciples who are, themselves, disciple makers. Discipleship was never meant to be found in the backwaters of the church’s calendar. It is the very purpose for which Christ created his church. A church that is not making disciples is not obeying the Great Commission. In addition, based on Acts 11:26, one might argue that a Christian is not one who simply believes that Jesus in the Messiah (after all the demons believe, James 2:19) but one who has made the commitment to be an active follower (disciple) of Jesus (cf. Luke 9:57-62). The main purpose for the church’s existence, then (according to Jesus), is to lead people to effectively follow Christ (cf. Eph 4:11-12).

If making disciples is the essence of the Great Commission, and the very purpose for which Christ created his church, then it is important we understand the specifics of what a disciple looks like. In what follows I want to outline the biblical marks of discipleship.

  1. As noted above, a disciple is, first and foremost, a follower of Jesus. Some might argue that believing in Jesus should be the first mark of a disciple. And while it stands to reason that belief in Jesus is of paramount importance (cf. John 3:16), it can be argued that belief in Jesus does not always lead to true salvation, let alone rise to the level of making one a disciple. Consider Matthew 7:21-23 where “believers” in Jesus are condemned (also note James 2:19 where demons are said to be believers!). When Jesus called his first disciples the call was unequivocally to “follow” Jesus. While it can be argued that they had a nascent belief that Jesus was the Messiah, it is clear that their belief in Jesus was incomplete. It took several years of following Christ before they had a true appreciation for, and what we might call a developed belief system concerning, the person and work of Jesus as the Messiah.
  2. A disciple is one who learns to follow Christ. The very definition of the word means to be a learner. However, the biblical context reveals that this learning is similar to what we today call On the Job Training. Learning happens in the context of following. And while Jesus taught the multitudes, for those who were following, he also demonstrated what he taught. Their learning was experiential. The disciples were effectively apprentices under Jesus. A cursory reading of Luke chapters nine and ten reveal that Jesus told the disciples what he wanted them to learn; he then demonstrated to the disciples what that looked like; finally he sent them off to do what he already showed them. What is a disciple to learn? This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start:
    1. They are to learn what the Master is doing, then do those things (John 14:12)
    2. They are to learn the teachings (doctrines) of scripture (Acts 2:42; Heb 5:12-13)
    3. They are to learn obedience to the Word (Luke 6:46, 1 Peter 2:1-3)
    4. They are to learn the will of God (Rom 12:1-2)
    5. They are to learn to live a life pleasing to God (Col 1:9-11)
    6. They are to learn to live holy lives (1 Peter 1:16)
    7. They are to learn to live a life of repentance and self-denial (Luke 9:23)
    8. They are to learn to share their faith (Matt 28:18-20, Acts 1:8, John 20:21; Luke 24:47; Mark 16:15)
    9. They are to learn to use their spiritual gifts (Romans 12:3-8; Cor 12:4-27)
    10. They are to learn submission to the leadership of Christ (John 14:23, Psalm 2)
    11. They are to learn to worship (John 4:22-24)
    12. They are to learn to pray (Matt 6:9-13)
    13. They are to learn to love God (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
    14. They are to learn to love others, even their enemies (Matt 5:43-47; Rom 13:8-10)
    15. They are to learn to give and be generous (Luke 6:36; 1 Cor 16:2; Phil 4:10, 15)
  3. A disciple is one who employs what he learns as a new way of life (Mark 4:24-25; Luke 6:46-49). This means he takes what he learns and puts it to use. He lives the truth (James 1:22-25; 2:14-17). In Matthew’s version of the Great Commission Jesus made this clear when he said we are to “Observe” all things he has “commanded” us. The Greek word we translate observe is tereo, and it means we are to pay careful attention to Jesus’ commands. We are to guard against not doing those things. We must make it our priority to obey, follow, and do those things he has instructed.

While the above list is not exhaustive, it reveals the true function of a disciple. I think a good working definition of a disciple can be stated as: A disciple is one who actively and obediently follows Christ into a new way of life in the context of the church for the purpose of making Christ known amongst the nations. It’s the last part of this definition we often lose sight of. Christ created the church to be a witness to his life, death, and resurrection so sinners can know the gospel and be saved. The church does not exist for the pleasure of its members, but for the glory of its King (Rev 19:16). Further, as someone once said, “The church is the only institution created for the benefit of its non-members.” Indeed, Christ did not come to “be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And he said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).

The program of the church is defined by the command to make disciples. This should and must be the church’s first priority. While there are many good things the church can do as disciples, it is a certainty that if the church is not making disciples it cannot do the one thing, indeed the very thing, it was created to do.

 

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Which Door?

This is chapter one of my book, “Man of the World, Battling Satan’s Infiltration of the Church.” Click on the link to the right to see more.

There seems to be a default mode that people lean towards in church life. While the invitation of the gospel is to enter into a unique and special relationship with God through Christ, many people seem content with a life of religion. The problem is that there is nothing in the gospel that even hints that that is God’s goal for a believer. Yet, there are many people who are active church members who are content with their religious routine and not even remotely concerned that the life of God is not a living reality for them. Yet, that is why Jesus came. He said, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3, NKJV). And, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The thief is Satan. He is the author of lifeless religion. But, Jesus came that we may know God and experience His life as a living reality on a daily basis. And notice, He said He came to bring an abundant life. This is not a normal, run of the mill common life that is content with sitting in pews and attending committee meetings. This is a supernatural, extraordinary, uncommon life that walks with the living God! This is the kind of life that is filled with a joy that is inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8). This is a life that experiences a peace that transcends understanding (Philippians 4:7). This is a life that knows every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Ephesians 1:3). In short, this is a life that knows God. Let that sink in. Knows. God.

So, before we look at the specifics of how Satan seeks to derail God’s will for the church, (something that he is quite skilled at) I have a question for you. Do you know God’s goal for your life? That is not an academic question. It is a matter of life and death. Get this answer wrong and everything that follows will take you in the wrong direction – away from God. But, in reality, the answer is simple. He wants you to love Him.[1] Period. He loves you with an everlasting love, and He has gone to great lengths to share His love with you and to enable you to love Him in return.

This is important to understand. Love is relational. The first and greatest commandment that God revealed to the world was that we are to love Him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. We are to love God with our entire being and with every fiber of our will. Love is life; and God wants that life to explode within us and ooze out of every pore of our body to those around us. And we need to understand that God’s love for us is more than we can possibly imagine.[2] His love is so great that He came to die for us so we never have to be separated from Him.

But, He is jealous for our love. He will not tolerate us loving something or someone else more than Him.[3] Loving something other than God is the very definition of idolatry. That doesn’t mean He doesn’t want us to love our spouse, children, or friends. No, in fact, He wants us to love them very much. But, He has created within us a very special place that was meant to be reserved only for Him, and He is jealous of that place – very jealous.

That place is meant to be the most important part of our life. It is where we are connected to God. Think of that place like a room. God has placed a room in every heart that has ever lived. And in that room God seeks, through faith in Christ, to place a doorway that opens to a very special place: the eternal presence of God. As the author of our life He has reserved the right to have complete and sole ownership of the room and have complete access through the doorway. He wants to enter the room of our life and commune with us forever.

As such, the room is meant to be the most significant and important part of our life. It is where we are meant to be intimately connected to God. But before He can enter the room He must place a doorway there. In our fallen, sinful state, the doorway has been blocked so we cannot have fellowship Him. The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Our sin effectively blocks the door so God’s presence is absent from our life. Jesus is the One who opens the door, and who becomes the door which leads to God. Through that door the Holy Spirit of God floods our lives with His life, love, hope, truth, and righteousness. So the Bible teaches that “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” True life can only be acquired and experienced when God enters our life through Christ.[4]

Therefore, allowing Christ to open the door into the room is the most important thing we can do this side of heaven. That door is opened when we place our faith in Christ. It’s not opened because one sits in church every once in a while. When the door is opened we receive the most valuable treasure that we can possess. We receive the fullness of God’s forgiveness, life, and unconditional love. Our Father knows that of all the essentials we need to survive, these things are the most important of all. Therefore, He is jealous to open the door, and to keep the door open so He can fill the room with these vital needs.

But God knows if the door is not opened and remains shut we will find ourselves in desperate peril. He does not want anything blocking the door. Blocking the door is akin to cutting a baby’s umbilical cord while still in the womb. Spiritually speaking we cannot survive such an event for long. If the room remains empty of His presence, our life is eternally forfeit! Let that sink in. Eternally. Forfeit. Lost. And no amount of church activity can change that.

However, after Jesus opens the door we learn to love God. And, when we love God as we were meant to, we make sure the room is always ready for Him and that nothing blocks the door. When we learn to do this, He dwells in this special place and fills it with His eternal life. Everything we experience with God begins in that room after He enters it.

Unfortunately we all have a sin problem and are subject to this danger. But sin has an author. His name is Satan. For reasons we will discuss later in the book, he hates God, and he desperately wants to shut the door of God in our lives, and fill the room with sin, despair, enmity, hopelessness, and death. Satan has many devices he employs in his efforts to pollute the room and block the door. But one of his most successful and enterprising efforts is to create a mirage which leads one to believe the room is full and the door is authentic. This is his most deadly of deceptions.

When an unsuspecting person walks into this mirage he believes the room has everything needed for life, and he believes the door leads to God when in reality it leads only to death.  This is the deception Satan uses to trap people into believing they are okay with God, when in fact they are on the road to hell. Satan achieves his mirage through religious sentiment and activities. He wants us to believe that all we need in the room is a bunch of religious stuff; and he wants that religious stuff to give the appearance of Christ – but be devoid of the life of Christ.

Once Satan successfully generates this mirage he leads the unsuspecting soul to become loyal to it. Many people love religion. As we will discuss in a later chapter, religion gives one a sense of confidence. Because of this, once a person becomes loyal to their religion they become very jealous of it. They will guard it and defend it. But tragically, many will discover that what they are defending is not real.

When Jesus came to the height of His public ministry many loyal members of the Pharisees felt threatened by Him. Little did they know that Jesus was trying to show them the real doorway so they could have true fellowship with God, and have that special room filled with His life. But they substituted the fullness of His life for the empty shell of religion.[5]

Because they saw Him as a threat, they defended their mirage to the point where they were actually fighting against God Himself. Think about that. As God was trying to open the door so they could have His life, they were desperately trying to make sure it stayed shut. This is the destination of lifeless religion. The height of their folly was revealed when they put Jesus to death. When they did, they effectively and eternally shut the door to God’s presence for themselves, and forfeited what God was trying to give them.[6] Likewise, even today, many people fall in love and become loyal to their religion, but they do so at the expense of their salvation. And in their misplaced loyalty to religion, they unknowingly declare war against God.[7]

In the following chapters we will see how Satan’s mirage takes shape, and we will look at the deception this mirage generates in our life. But before we proceed, it is important to understand a very vital point. God is not interested in religion qua religion. He is interested in people. He came to us so we can receive His life and enjoy Him forever. He wants to have a relationship with people that will never come to an end. We must make sure that we don’t make the mistake the Pharisees made by exchanging the life of Christ for religion.

Religion proper is a system of activities, and even an institutional identity, that has the ability to lead people to identify with God. But identifying with God is not the same thing as having a vibrant relationship with Him. One can be religious and have a relationship with God. But the relationship is the principle focus of God. The reality is that there are many religious people who have no relationship with God at all, and tragically they don’t know it. In fact, religion can become a distraction that prevents them from ever meeting God. Consider the rebuke God gave to His people through the prophet Isaiah:

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” says the Lord; “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”[8]

Notice, they had all the religion their calendar could handle, but had none of the relationship their religion was meant to initiate. Though they believed they were worshiping God, and even pleasing Him, He declared that He was not listening and He was not with them. Instead of being in communion with God, He reveals they only had the pollution of sin. In all their religion they never knew God was absent. The true door was shut and their religious practices made sure it was nailed shut.

It needs to be pointed out that God did not hate their religion for the sake of hating religion. He hated their religion because it actually prevented them from knowing Him in spirit and truth. As such they continued to live in sin and believed they were worshiping God all the while ignorant of their great peril.

This is where Satan is a master. He can distract us from the realities of God’s life and lead us to see only the superficial adornments of a life-denying religiosity.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-religion. After all, I am a pastor. But I am against the deceptive mirages the enemy creates. True religion leads to the life of Christ. As an under-shepherd to Christ I have a great love for the church and I desire to see the Lord’s sheep enter the true door where they can feed on green pastures and drink still waters that gives rest to their souls – a place where they can obtain strength for their journey and enjoy true fellowship with God. But as a pastor I cannot stand to see the sheep running into the desert where they will not find God’s life but will only suffer the scorching heat of sin and breathe the arid climate of despair, all the while thinking they are running to God.

At the same time I don’t want people to flee the church because they “hate” religion. The church was created to be, and should be the fragrance of God’s life in the world. As such, the church needs to reveal the true doorway to life – that it is found in Christ, not in religion. True religion always leads people to Christ, who is God’s life. To that end the church must wage war against the schemes of the enemy so the sheep can be free to come and go into the glorious presence of their loving God and shepherd, who laid down His life so they can freely and boldly come to the throne of grace.

The reality is that the whole history of God’s work of salvation can be distilled down to that one point: Everything God did was so Jesus could come to open the true door of eternal life and to make sure everyone has an opportunity to walk through it and discover a living, vibrant faith that brings one into communion with the God.[9]

Thankfully, God did not come to bring us a dry, dead, lifeless religion. He came to bring us His indestructible life through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Through Him, God gives His life away in abundance.

However, a Man of the World is one who is satisfied with religion. He has fallen in love with it, and it has become his god. So when the true living God shows up, the lover of religion thinks it’s an intrusion and he finds it very distressing. The first area God’s presence disturbs in that person’s heart gets to the heart of man’s fallen condition. When God shows up He knocks on the door of that room and demands he hand over the key. He then commands him to relinquish control of the room and allow Him in.

But, despite all piety of religion, a true Man of the World says, “No!”

To that subject we turn next.

 

[1] Matthew 22:36-37; Deuteronomy 6:5

[2] Ephesians 3:19

[3] Exodus 20:4-6

[4] John 17:3

[5] John 5:40; Also, read the entire chapter of Matthew 23

[6] Matthew 23:15

[7] John 5:16; 7:1

[8] Isaiah 1:11-15

[9] John 10:10

Closing Doors

What motivates people to come to church? I recently had this conversation with a person who attends church every time the doors are opened. We recently began a men’s group for the express purpose of promoting and encouraging men to be followers of Christ. The conversation began as a response to our men’s discipleship group. I was told, in effect, that the group was useless as it does not give men answers to the problems they face in daily life. Right. It is not meant to. It was designed for the express purpose of encouraging men to be disciples.

But, the conversation was very productive. I was asked what my goal for the church was. I explained that I want the church to become a place where people are saved (come to know Jesus as Savior), and where they learn to be disciples (learn to follow Christ), and where they are sent out as servants with the gospel of Christ. The response I received was very revealing. It began with a sigh, a lowered voice, and a slumping of the shoulders. Considering that non-verbal’s account for 93% of communication, that was a loud expression of disapproval.

Next came the statement, “I was hoping you would understand why people come to church.” Essentially I was told that the reason people come to church was to find answers for their problems. “Everyday life beats people up. They come looking for answers to their addictions, personality disorders, family problems, relational problems, etc. etc.,” I was told. In effect, I was being informed that I was out of touch with people. There was not a complaint that I had not addressed an urgent need in ones life, but just the general sense was given that I did not understand people. Hmm.

Immediately after that conversation Continue reading

Membership -vs- Discipleship

As a church, we need to lose the concept of “Church Membership.” Nowhere in scripture are we called to church membership. Instead, with acute clarity, scripture makes it clear that we are to be followers of Christ (see Matthew 4:19).

The word “membership” carries with it ideas that are contrary to the spirit of being a disciple. When one seeks membership to an organization, she is seeking the entitlements and benefits of that organization. With membership comes perks. However, with discipleship comes obligations and duty. Members seeks to have needs met. Disciples seek to serve.

In any given church, you have people who match the description of each type. Those who joined the “membership” expect a return on the dues (tithes) they pay into the system. Their contributions earn them the right to receive the benefits of membership. I recently spoke with a man who was an amateur artist.  At best, his works were tolerable. Some of them expressed nice sentiments. One such picture attempted to communicate the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ – very nice thoughts. As a picture it failed. The man told me that he was very upset that a staff member of his church would not place the painting in the sanctuary during worship, and he even expressed annoyance that his pastor did not use the painting as a prop in his sermons for Christmas. As he explained this, he dropped the clue that he was involved in “membership,” and therefore expected his rights to be met. He said, “I’m going to the deacons since the staff member won’t use my painting!” Whoa! He saw the deacons as the governing board that makes sure members rights are seen to.

In contrast, a servant does not seek Continue reading

Unleashing the Power!

Much mischief has come to the church from people operating on manmade expectations. People like busyness, and they like productivity. But, some people seldom consider the impact that is being made for the Kingdom of God. I had a conversation with a man who told me about all the wonderful stuff his church was doing just a couple of years ago. However, he forget to mention the crisis that took place during that time: the number of people who left; the conflict in the church staff; the dishonest way certain committees attempted to manipulate church circumstances; the many people who weekly attacked the pastor after every sermon – and oh, there was the deacon who left his wife and kids and ran off with a woman in the choir half his age – oh those good old days! But, the church had programs, and appeared to be productive!!

And people wonder why churches cannot reach their communities. We have forgotten the gospel. The gospel is not about busyness and programs and productivity. It is about life transformation. It is about becoming a new creation in Christ. It is about righteousness and Godliness. It is about having the entirety of one’s life turned upside down – or should I say, turned right side up. It is about learning to live for God, as one learns to love God. That may not be very flashy. It may not have the outward appearance of being “productive,” whatever that means in the economy of God’s kingdom. But, it is the very heart of the gospel.

Paul said “I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God unto salvation….” The church that expects to see power again (we once called that revival) must make the gospel the center of church life. I don’t want the “good old days” to come back to the church. I want the power of God to rock the foundations of the church!

A couple of weeks ago there was an earthquake about sixty miles from where we live. A friend’s house now has a nice long crack on his basement floor because of it. The power of that earthquake reached far beyond its epicenter and impacted by friend’s house sixty miles away. The church will reach its community only when it learns that the gospel can unleash the power of heaven. When it does, homes and lives and families far from the church will feel the impact.

The reality is that the church that does not know the power of God must substitute true transformation with superficial busyness. A pox on that house! Let us get back to the gospel! And maybe God will have mercy and pour out the fullness of His Spirit, so we can once again see lives transformed through the gospel of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ!